What Happens To Your Body If Your Oxygen Levels Are Too Low?

Oxygen is an essential ingredient for most life on earth. For humans, oxygen is a basic survival need, just like food and water.

According to MedicalNewsToday, you might survive for a month or two without food; and you may hold out for a few days without water. However, oxygen is perhaps our most urgent survival need — we cannot live long without it. Long-term brain damage onsets when you are starved of oxygen for a meager four minutes. If you go another four-to-six minutes without oxygen, it could be fatal (via MedlinePlus).

When your blood oxygen levels are low, you may experience hypoxemia (not to be confused with hypoxia: a lack of oxygen in your tissues). Hypoxemia may cause hypoxia, but the latter can develop independently (via the Cleveland Clinic). Hypoxemia can be caused by a wide range of factors including high altitude, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, and sleep apnea.

COVID-19 may also induce what doctors call "silent hypoxemia," where patients with COVID pneumonia are awake and alert despite having low blood oxygen levels that should render them unconscious (via The New York Times). What does it feel like to experience hypoxemia?

Hypoxemia: symptoms, treatment, and management

Hypoxemia can be a critical medical condition that may cause a laundry list of complications and symptoms. For starters, you may develop a cough or begin wheezing (via Cleveland Clinic). Your lips, fingernails, and skin may turn a shade of blue.

Starved of oxygen, you may feel lightheaded and in a mental fog. You may find your heart pounding rapidly as you struggle to breathe at full capacity. Loss of coordination is another possibility (via MedicalNewsToday). You may also experience pains, like chest pain and headaches, if you have hypoxemia. 

According to Healthline, doctors can treat hypoxemia by giving you supplemental oxygen, which helps bring your blood oxygen levels up. Sometimes, your doctor may prescribe you an inhaler. In extreme cases, you may be placed on a ventilator (via Cleveland Clinic).

Fortunately, there's plenty you can do to mitigate your risks of getting hypoxemia. Outside of managing any existing health conditions, it really comes down to making health-conscious lifestyle choices (via Healthline). You might want to put down the cigarettes and limit your alcohol consumption. Steer clear of air pollution, especially for prolonged periods of time. Even something as simple as washing your hands can prevent an infection, like pneumonia, which can lead to hypoxemia.